Imposter syndrome and how I sort of got over it

6 Jun

I remember being at the British International Studies Association conference many years ago and some bigwig in International Relations introduced another bigwig with the words ‘And if you don’t know who our plenary speaker is, then you probably are at the wrong conference.’ I didn’t know who the plenary speaker was – other than an older male who looked very pleased with himself. It is just one of the countless number of points of exclusion in academia where I felt that I did not quite belong and that I should not really be in the room. Some of the exclusion is simply rudeness – the stunning lack of social awareness and professional courtesy that some academics have towards others. Some of it is hardwired into the structure and practices of our sector.

The other day, the PhD students at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham organised an interesting session on ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘belonging’ in academia – hence the spur to write this blogpost. The notion of imposter syndrome seems to be gathering more attention in the academy. Part of that increasing attention is related to a welcome growing awareness of mental health and well-being issues in the academy. But very probably issues of imposter syndrome and belonging are as old as the academy itself. People have always felt that somehow they do not have the knowledge, skills, background, or qualifications to ‘fit in’.

What follow are the personal reflections of a white, male of a certain age in (what I hope is) reasonably secure employment. In short, they are reflections from a position of relative privilege. We should be very aware that the exclusion that makes up imposter syndrome is gendered and shaped by class, race and a range of other social and cultural characteristics. If I – as a white male – can experience imposter syndrome, what must it be like for a female of colour who does not have academic English as her first language and is in a room with more senior colleagues who are sharing a series of in-jokes?

Fundamentally, academia is exclusive. There are barriers to entry, not least in terms of qualifications. Hierarchy is everywhere in terms of the titles people have and their security of employment. Perhaps the largest driver of a sense of not belonging is the isolated way in which many of us work in the humanities. Unlike many of the natural sciences where people often work in teams, research in the social sciences can be a lonely furrow. There is often a triangular relationship between the researcher, the computer screen, and doubt. It is this doubt, I would suggest, that is the key driver behind imposter syndrome – the feeling of not being quite good enough or of not fitting in. Given the amount of alone time we have, that doubt can grow and become paralysing.

So what can be done? Before continuing, I remind the reader of my own privilege. Would I write the following when I was still mired in my PhD? It also helps that I am a comparativist rather than an area studies professional who has to perfect a language and become deeply immersed in one context.

In an odd way, I have come to see imposter syndrome as somewhat empowering. I realised early on in my career that there would always be someone cleverer, better read and more articulate in the room. That person had just published the definitive book on the subject, had just landed a whopping grant, or just come back from the most amazing fieldwork. While I could string together a few stumbling sentences on the topic, they would manage to extemporaneously speak for twenty minutes with fined-tuned oratory. I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that this would always be the case: there would always be someone cleverer in the room. So I got past being paralysed by imposter syndrome and just got on with my own thing. Some academics engage with what I do. Many others would dismiss it as variously unscientific or not theoretical enough. I can live with that.

I also think that a degree of imposter syndrome can be useful in the research process in terms of epistemology and positionality. The best place to begin research is from a position of not knowing. If we already know the answers, why do the research? But if we begin from a position of (feminist) curiosity, of wanting to find out the answers, and wanting to engage with others who have far more knowledge than us, then research becomes fun, rewarding and intellectually fulfilling. If it is about proving that you are the cleverest person in the room, well good for you. But I am not playing that game.

I was also struck by the very good advice from my colleagues Carly Beckerman and Ilan Baron on the importance of having a life outside of academia. That allows us to put the inevitable knock-backs (the rejected manuscript submissions, the failed grant applications, the punishing feedback) into perspective. It also allows us to fill the space that might otherwise be filled with doubt or a sense of inadequacy. Also crucial is the social infrastructure that departments can provide in terms of coffee breaks, after seminar drinks, and other opportunities to share with others. Many of the ‘rules’ of academia are not written down and so these semi-social interactions become vital information-sharing spaces in which the unwritten conventions of academia are passed on.

It is also important that we think about the environment we create in our own practice. I was very taken by something I saw many years ago. I was just starting out in a lectureship and David Denver from Lancaster organised a conference on elections and surveys. Many of the attendees and presenters were early career researchers and PhD students. David sat immediately in front of the podium. As people spoke, he engaged in active and positive listening. He nodded vigorously, would chip in audibly with ‘good point’, and would ask questions in very constructive ways. It was a generous thing to do and it cost little. I was also struck by Christine Cheng’s chairing of a panel at the International Studies Association this year when she opened the questions by saying ‘Questions from female and early career scholars are particularly welcome’. None of this is about dumbing down or abandoning rigour. Instead, it is about reminding ourselves of the importance of civility and inclusion.

3 Responses to “Imposter syndrome and how I sort of got over it”

  1. Sarah Njeri Deall 06/06/2019 at 6:41 pm #

    Thank you very much Roger for this. This is brilliant. I can tell you being a woman (of colour) whose academic career defies the traditional trajectory – there are many many a times when I have been almost cowed by this monstrous syndrome. I remember a certain Professor constantly reminding me of my lack of a first degree as a reason I was struggling with the PhD – and how this in turns sneaks into many situations where I start feeling out of my depth.. Then though un-invited that lingering question that seems not to far away sneaks in and the self doubt begins. Reading this is reassuring … So is the help and support from colleagues who keep reminding me that the skills I have are indeed vital for the survival in an impact driven research environment. It is indeed these very skills that I am utilizing in my research today and whose fruits I am beginning to enjoy. A consultancy here, a small research grant there and all this counts in the bigger scheme of things. I am learning to embrace my non -academic career experience and respecting it just as those who trot into this spaces with their Oxford and Cambridge badges do.

    So I can not thank you enough for sharing this… it is reassuring and a good reminder that I will one day learn how to push away that lingering doubt whenever it visits….

    Sarah

    • rogermacginty 06/06/2019 at 8:16 pm #

      Thank you Sarah – for the kind comments. Much appreciated. I think the word ‘sneaks’ is very relevant. These doubts – and the comments and situations that confront us – sneak into our consciousness. I hope our paths cross soon.

  2. Phil Vernon 23/08/2019 at 11:44 pm #

    One of my most surprising moments: I dared tell my (heroically successful) boss’ boss that I felt a fraud in my apparent ‘success’. His response: ‘I know! It never goes away. I’m never sure if it was merely circumstances or if it really was about me.’
    After that, I stopped worrying. If he was unsure, it hardly mattered if was, too.’

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